Raw Power: Mt St Helens

Any visitor to Seattle will remark on the pyramidical Mt Rainier, which sits, painted on the horizon like something out of a fairy-tale. But this is no ordinary mountain. Mt Rainier is a volcano. It’s one in a long line known as the Cascade Volcanic Arc, which stretches from Canada, through Washington State, into Oregon and Northern California.

In May 1980, Mt St Helens (the next mountain south from Mt Rainier) announced to the world that it was very much alive with an enormous volcanic eruption. I studied that eruption as part of GCSE geography, and I had always wanted to see the mountain for myself, so as we drove south from Seattle, I took the time-honoured joy of a road-trip diversion.

Mt St Helens is about 45 minutes from Highway 5, the main road south from Seattle towards Portland. To get to the mountain, we turned east off the main highway and headed up a forested valley, along elegant bridges that carried us over braided rivers.

The main visitor centre for Mt St Helens is Johnston Ridge Observatory, manned by National Park Rangers. The centre houses an excellent exhibition, which documents the processes that caused the explosion, as well as its immediate and enduring impact. The volcano is still actively monitored from the observatory, which is named after a scientist who died here that day.

The entire area has been left to naturally recover, to study how the ecosystem would repair itself, and as a memorial to the 57 people who perished during the explosion.

The mountain itself is remarkable. It rises prominently from the surrounding hills, its former cone outline traceable along its flanks. But the entire centre of the mountain is missing, as if it was scooped out. The eruption triggered a landslide that caused the mountain to lose a third of its height. In the centre of that crater, a new lava dome has formed, the heat of which melts ice on the surface. To the north, beyond Johnston Ridge,  is another ridge, this one covered with dead trees that look like scattered matchsticks. They were all blown flat by the hot air that blasted outwards when the landslide unplugged the mountain.


The diversion to Mt St Helens was worth it. The whole region is stunning, looking much as it would have before man arrived in the area. It is also a reminder that, no matter how powerful we become, there are some things that are beyond our control.

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